The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced a few years ago by the present author and continued here today, wherein that same author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own fallible intuition to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above who (a) received a future value grade of 40 or less from lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth during the course of his organizational lists and who (b) was omitted from the preseason prospect lists produced by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and John Sickels, and also who (c) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing on an updated prospect list or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the current season’s amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.

In the final analysis, the basic idea is this: to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant. Note that, in a slight departure from previous years, the author has decided here to publish the first edition of the Five on also the first day of the minor-league baseball season. Note also that the author has borrowed some of the language which follows from the Cistulli Guy passages which have appeared in Dan Farnsworth’s organizational lists.

*****

Willians Astudillo, C, Atlanta (Profile)
The Atlanta Braves signed Astudillo to a minor-league deal this past offseason only about a month after having hired lead prospect analyst and human reggaeton horn Kiley McDaniel away from this site. “Coincidence?” the reader might be inclined to ask. To which the present author is equally inclined to reply: “Very probably, yes.” When McDaniel published his Phillies list last year, Astudillo (a member of the Philadelphia system at that time) was absent entirely from it. Indeed, one finds that Astudillo was absent from Dan Farnsworth’s Atlanta list this offseason, as well. It’s not difficult to find the logic in either omission. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 182 pounds, Astudillo bears a distinct physical resemblance to an overripe pear. And for the bulk of his professional career, he’s lacked a fixed defensive home, playing some first and some third and some catcher. What he has done, however, is to hit. Regard: in 2015, over the span of 418 plate appearances in the High-A Florida State League, Astudillo produced just a 2.4% strikeout rate, the lowest figure in affiliated baseball by nearly two full points. That rate of contact gives Astudillo considerable leeway in terms of actual power on contact. Moreover, there appears to be some actual catcher skill developing here. Astudillo begins the season with Double-A Mississippi. By way of reference, here’s his most recent MiLB profile image:

Astudillo

Adam Frazier, SS/CF, Pittsburgh (Profile)
While it aggrieves the author to admit such a thing, it’s also manifestly true that Adam Frazier’s profile is most expediently characterized by a dumb car-related metaphor. Which is to say, if certain prospects — like those who possess considerable tools, for example — bear superficial resemblance to a Ferrari, then Adam Frazier ought most accurately be regarded as some manner of sensible Japanese-made sedan. In roughly zero ways is he impressive. A sixth-round selection out of Mississippi State in 2013, Frazier is listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds — which is to say, the precise height and weight of every middle-school principle in America. He possesses below-average power and roughly average foot speed, nor has he ever been particularly young for his levels. What he does do, however, is make contact at a considerably above-average rate and also play shortstop. Which, that has value. Here, by way of illustration, are all the qualified major-league batters in 2015 to produce a better-than-average strikeout rate and also play shortstop:

Adam Frazier-Like Shortstops, 2015
Name Team PA K% wRC+ WAR
1 Xander Bogaerts Red Sox 654 15.4% 109 4.3
2 Andrelton Simmons Braves 583 8.2% 82 3.2
3 Didi Gregorius Yankees 578 14.7% 89 3.1
4 Asdrubal Cabrera Rays 551 19.4% 104 2.2
5 Wilmer Flores Mets 510 12.4% 95 1.9
6 Jhonny Peralta Cardinals 640 17.3% 105 1.7
7 Elvis Andrus Rangers 661 11.8% 77 1.6
8 Alcides Escobar Royals 662 11.3% 67 1.5
9 Freddy Galvis Phillies 603 17.1% 76 1.3
10 Erick Aybar Angels 638 11.4% 80 1.0
11 Starlin Castro Cubs 578 15.7% 80 0.8
12 Jose Reyes – – – 519 11.9% 80 0.5
13 Jean Segura Brewers 584 15.9% 62 0.3
14 Jimmy Rollins Dodgers 563 15.3% 80 0.2
15 Alexei Ramirez White Sox 622 10.9% 72 -0.5
Average – – – 596 13.9% 84 1.5

What one finds here is a collection, in some cases, of uninspiring talents which nevertheless conspired to produce, on average, nearly a two-win season. That would be a non-negligible accomplishment for a former sixth-round pick. Frazier begins the season, it appears, with Triple-A Indianapolis.

Edison Frias, RHP, Houston (Profile)
Frias is rare among those pitchers omitted from the top of prospect lists, on account of he’s not only recorded excellent fielding-independent numbers, but also because he’s exhibited above-average arm speed at the same time. Signed out of the Dominican Republic, Frias surpassed the 100-inning threshold for the first time as a professional in 2015, recording strikeout and walk rates of 23.5% and 6.7%, respectively, across 26 appearances (20 starts) at High- and Double-A while also sitting mostly at 93-94 mph with his fastball and featuring two legitimate secondary pitches. At 24, he skewed old for his levels; however, his success doesn’t appear to be the product merely of a polished, more experienced pitcher exploiting younger competition.

The video below — excerpted from a late-season start — illustrates some of Frias’s strengths. In the same at-bat, he exhibits (a) a first-pitch curveball for an easy called strike, (b) a fastball at 95 mph, and finally (c) a curveball with greater depth for a swinging strike three.

Sherman Johnson, 2B/3B, Los Angeles AL (Profile)
Tied for first place on last year’s arbitrarily calculated Fringe Five scoreboard, Angels infield prospect Sherman Johnson remains equal parts compelling and overlooked as the 2016 season begins. After producing a batting line about 20% better than league average over the first 1,500 plate appearances of his minor-league career, Johnson recorded a batting line nearly 20% worse than average in the Double-A Texas League last season. According to the numbers at FanGraphs, that is. What one needs to know, however, is that the minor-league batting lines here aren’t park-adjusted, only league-adjusted. StatCorner, curated by friend of the site Matthew Carruth, does adjust minor-league batting lines for park. And the effects of that extra calculation are relevant in the case of Johnson.

Regard:

Sherman Johnson’s Park-Adjusted wOBAs, 2013-15
Year Age Team Level PA wOBA+
2013 23 Burlington A 474 107
2013 23 Inland Empire A+ 31 108
2014 24 Inland Empire A+ 623 113
2015 25 Arkansas AA 591 94
Park-adjusted wOBA (wOBA+) care of StatCorner.

Johnson’s highs haven’t been as high, nor his lows as low, as the merely league-adjusted lines would suggest. At root, however, one finds the same promising collection of skills: strong plate discipline, above-average foot speed, non-negligible power, and the capacity to produce net-positive defensive runs. Johnson returns to Double-A Arkansas to begin the year.

Jose Martinez, OF, Kansas City (Profile)
These Fringe Five posts are typically populated by prospects who occupy — in the minors, at least — who occupy a place somewhere on the more challenging end of the defensive spectrum. By way of illustration, consider every other position player mentioned here. Astudillo, Conrad, Frazier, Johnson, Locastro, Tauchman, Trinkwon: roughly speaking, that’s one catcher, one center fielder, and then a fleet of middle infielders. Nor are these selections without some manner of logic: players who offer modest contributions on both the offensive and defensive sides of the game are also the sort who most frequently exceed expectations — because, while they typically lack a carrying tool, they also (by definition) are making contributions both on offense and defense. Martinez, meanwhile, has recorded roughly 95% of his minor-league starts in an outfield corner. For what he lacks in defensive value, however, he compensates for it by way of offensive skill. He was the best player in the Pacific Coast League last year according to a rough minor-league approximation of WAR provided by StatCorner. Nor does that ackowledge perhaps his most notable trait — namely, his height. Martinez is 6-foot-7. Over the last decade, only 10 seasons have been logged by players 6-foot-7 or higher. All told, players around his height — which is to say, from 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 — have recorded a .223 isolated-power mark in 17,750 plate appearances. All of which is to say that Martinez quite possibly hasn’t reached his power ceiling yet. Paired with an above-average penchant for contact, that conspires to produce an interesting offensive profile.

The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.

Jace Conrad, 2B/3B, Tampa Bay (High-A Florida State League)
Kyle Lloyd, RHP, San Diego (Double-A Texas League)
Tim Locastro, 2B/SS, Los Angeles NL (High-A California League)
Mike Tauchman, OF, Colorado (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Brandon Trinkwon, 2B/3B, Los Angeles NL (Double-A Texas League)

Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here are the top-10 the players to have appeared among either the Fringe Five (FF) or Next Five (NF) so far this season (which is to say, today). For mostly arbitrary reasons, players are assessed three points for each week they’ve appeared among the Fringe Five; a single point, for each week among the Next Five.

Fringe Five Scoreboard, 2016
Name Team POS FF NF PTS
1 Willians Astudillo Braves C 1 0 3
2 Adam Frazier Pirates SS/CF 1 0 3
3 Sherman Johnson Angels 2B/3B 1 0 3
4 Edison Frias Astros RHP 1 0 3
5 Jose Martinez Royals OF 1 0 3
6 Jace Conrad Rays 2B/3B 0 1 1
7 Kyle Lloyd Padres RHP 0 1 1
8 Tim Locastro Dodgers 2B/SS 0 1 1
9 Michael Tauchman Rockies OF 0 1 1
10 Brandon Trinkwon Dodgers 2B/3B 0 1 1

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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I thought Frias would get nabbed in the Rule 5 draft. If his fastball ticks up out of the pen he would be a useful piece.